It has been some time since I have thought about the old "video games as art debate," but this week, a thought provoking post has reinvigorated my interest in the subject. I am of the mind that video games are art, but I am often troubled when I attempt to amass evidence to support this feeling. Breaking a game down into its most granular details can be useful, but when I do it, I end up with a list of why I like the game, rather than why I think it is art.
Perhaps the best evidence that video games are art can be found in a phenomenon most of the gaming community scorns: Here, I speak of fanboys.
Fanboys (forgive the exclusively masculine form, as I know from experience "fanboys" are of all gender constructs) are many things, but at their core, I agree with the Wikipedia entry that describes them as "devoted to a single subject in an emotional or fanatical manner." This emotion and fanaticism is often destructive, but what initially creates these feelings?
Justin Keverne recently grappled with the issue of fanboyism, saying:
"I want to scream it from the rooftops because I believe in the power of this medium and honestly think that if I can get somebody else to have the same experience I had with this game, and others then they’ll understand it too. I cannot always accurately describe it is about a particular game that had such an affect on me, and the excitement I feel at having witnessed that moment of potentiality can make such critical thought even harder. I can explain the circumstances of the event and what I felt but even that not always enough. I get frustrated and angry at my inability to make other people understand, I get emotional, irrational. I rant, I snap, I resort to childish insults. You don’t understand and I can’t make you, and that’s painful."
This passage impressed me: I have never read a clearer explanation of how games make me feel. Justin portrays fanboys in a sympathetic light: they are people who have been affected by something wonderful, but this "something" cannot be truly explained or shared.
Art is meant to provoke the part of us that eschews logic, the part of us that cannot be rationally explained. We may speak with stoicism of meter in poetry, of color in paintings, of measures in music, and of level design in games, but these are processed reactions. We analyze these things because we find them interesting, and we find them interesting because they elicit in us uncontrollable responses. It is a cruel joke that two people can play the identical game and have completely opposite reactions. Trying to explain how and why games affect us is often a journey into absurdity.
Despite (or perhaps because) of this absurdity, it is a journey worth taking. In harnessing the emotional reactions games provoke, we may use them as introspective tools. Rational analysis empowers us with knowledge just as irrational emotion empowers us with feeling.
The trick is keeping our perspective on this journey. It is no accident that Jorge and I made the site's mantra "Serious, but not humorless, analysis of video games and culture." Without seeing the humor in the absurd task of trying to describe how art works, we would go mad and spiral into the dark side fanboyism. Fanboyism is not so much a choice as it is a force.
Thinking of it in terms of the Force actually may not be a bad way to think about it. Fanboyism is the essence that draws us to games; it compels our interest in something that is both mysterious and comforting. It can be abused, and indulging in it without restraint may warp our minds, turning us into dark shadows of our former selves. However, using feelings of fanboyism as the starting point for reflection and understanding liberates us by teaching us about ourselves, and then about all of humanity.
And what is the origin of this force? It is art. What other type of human creativity could inspire such irrational reactions? It may sound preposterous, even heretical, but art breeds fanboys.
Certainly a strange concept I will admit, but I think it makes at least as much sense as that midi-chlorian bullshit.